Once regarded as experimental noise artists. Sonic Youth are about to find a new audience as they gatecrash the world of MTV’s The .S'inzpsons. Damien Love asks the band how it feels to follow in the footsteps of Paul and Linda McCartney.
etween Homer Simpson burping and a man sexually gratifying himself with the mouth of a dead transvestite in a bloody bathtub. spins a planet of difference. The second image is culled from the scum art hardcore of New York‘s East Village. the milieu explored by
filmmaker. photographer and pornograpber Richard Kern. (‘luiracterised by disturbing extremes of sex. violence. violent sex and sexual violence. spotted with cancer-black humour. Kern‘s work is intentionally.
uncompromisingly shocking. It is. however. accessed mainly by like-minded. and therefore presumably unoffended. souls.
Matt (iroening‘s The .S'impmns. on the other hand. has successfully wedged itself in the mass consciousness. insidiously chipping away at society‘s values from within. with Groening retaining a crucial hint of underground credibility. A thin bridge called Sonic Youth tentiously links these artistic poles.
At one time. the band were largely regarded as
Sonic Youth refuse to come clean experimental noise artists with a sordid death- cult fixation. intent on creating deliberately unpleasant. inaccessible rackets. the aural equivalent of Kern’s Super-8 shorts. lndeed they collaborated with the artist in l985. on the gore- o-rama ‘Death Valley 69’ video. Today. fifteen years after their formation. Sonic Youth are seen as the hip granddaddies to MTV's ‘alternative‘ nation. and. lo and behold. are set to appear in a forthcoming episode of The Sim/2mm. following in the animated footsteps of Paul and Linda McCartney.
From Kern‘s switchblade-wielding actress Lungleg. to Bart and Lisa. seems a mighty long and twisted route for Sonic Youth to have travelled. ‘Heh-heh.’ cackles Lee Ranaldo. a man who has spent a considerable part of his life abusing guitars with screwdrivers. ‘Yeah. I suppose so. But it’s been a pretty long evolution for the band. We’ve always been interested in working with different people in different situations. so. for us it‘s a . . . well. I dunno if I 'd say it’s a natural thing . . . '
SONIC YOUTH FEATURE
The healthy amount of collaborative work undertaken by the band members. linked to and independent of Sonic Youth. has probably played a crucial role in the band’s longevity and vitality. Names like Richard Hell. William Burroughs. Chuck D. Kim Deal. Cypress Hill. Glenn Branca. Iggy Pop. Neil Young and Maureen Tucker litter the band‘s CV.
‘I suppose it’s played some kind of role. but, I dunno.‘ says‘ Ranaldo. ‘Maybe we’d still be playing together anyway. It definitely keeps things rejuvenating. We‘ve been pretty lucky in that we’ve been able to work with just about anyone we‘re interested in. With people like Neil and Iggy. it’s more like a fantasy. I mean. I just did a session with Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith‘s group. who I’d have thought: “Wow it’d be amazing to be in a studio with him”, and all of a sudden. here you are. it‘s happening and you‘re in the middle of it and your peers. That stuffjust seems to happen to us all the time.’
Sonic Youth's involvement with The .S'r'nzpsmzs can be seen as part of the band’s long- term fascination with the residue of popular culture — witness Kim Gordon‘s Karaoke Robert Palmer on the Ciccone Youth project, the band’s
‘We’ve been pretty lucky in that we’ve been able to work with just about anyone we’re interested in . . . All of a sudden, here you are, it’s happening and you’re in the middle of it and your peers. That stuft just seems to happen to us all the time.’
Karen Carpenter obsession. and the girl-group sugar-heaven of recent single ‘Little Trouble Girl.‘ l-lowever. as Ranaldo points out. it also ‘says something about how many more people know who we are.’
Kurt Cobain lamented the college-jock fraternity who latched onto Nirvana post-‘Teen Spirit.‘ Success spoils the party more often than not. and Sonic Youth‘s underground days must sometimes seem very appealing. ‘There’s occasionally that kind of feeling.’ Lee says. ‘There was the whole silly thing where we were threatening to change the name of the band for this record. and that was coming out of that kind of thing. wanting people to take us as a fresh band in a way. But it was probably more the yearning for people to listen to the record as though it was a first record and say. “Is this any good?" and not say. “Well. let’s see — how does this compare to the last record?" ‘
A decade and a half on. integrity resolutely intact. Sonic Youth are held as a totem by many. proof that it is possible to go your own way on your own terms and succeed. But being respected surely signals potential death to a band whose make-up is as much art-conscious. confrontational and experimental as it is ‘Rock.’ Revolution becomes institution.
Lee Ranaldo doesn‘t really have an answer. but acknowledges the conundrum: ‘We've been aware for a while now that there’s this sort of “regard.” and it‘s gone back and forth — there’s a bit of reverence and a bit of “Haven’t these guys been around long enough?" But this is what we do. We have the same feelings about other acts. y’know, sometimes it’s: “These guys should quit while they’re ahead” and sometimes it's: “These guys are great. They’re just gonna go on forever.m Sonic Youth play the Burrow/and, Glasgow on Sunday I 4 April.
The List 5-18 Apr l99613